Monday, August 19, 2019

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Liturgical Wisdom

The son honoureth the father, and the servant his master.
If then I be a father, where is my honour?
And if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts.
To you, O priests, that despise my name, and have said:
Wherein have we despised thy name?
You offer polluted bread upon my altar, and you say:
Wherein have we polluted thee?
In that you say: The table of the Lord is contemptible.
(Mal 1:6–7)
As St. John teaches, if our charity reaches perfection, we no longer stand in a slavish fear of God as our master and judge (1 Jn 4:18). Rather, we love Him as “all good and deserving of all our love.” In this way we do still fear Him, but with the fear of sons who reverence their Father and are afraid of offending Him or of doing less for Him than they ought. This is what the Catholic tradition refers to as “filial fear” or “reverential fear.” Perfect love does not cast out virtuous fear, but rather intensifies it.

The Introit for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost combines explicit joy and implicit fear in a striking juxtaposition: “Clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy. Ps. For the Lord is most high, He is terrible; He is a great King over all the earth.” The Church is teaching us that our joy is rooted in the Lord’s sovereignty, our exaltation in His aweful might. The nations clap their hands because God is a great King over all the earth; otherwise they would cower in fear of their enemies, visible and invisible. The Psalmist never lets us forget this fundamental truth of creaturehood: Servite Domino in timore, et exsultate ei cum tremore. “Serve ye the Lord in fear, and exult in Him with trembling” (Ps 2:11). “In your fear I will worship toward your holy temple” (Ps 5:8).

It is therefore cause for spiritual concern that the note of holy fear is minimal in the reformed liturgical books, considering how enormous a role it plays in the Bible — in both Testaments! — and in the traditional Latin liturgy that transmits the pure spirit of Christian worship to us. Evidently it was decided that “modern man” had transcended the relationship of subordinate to superior, of son to father, and consequently had outgrown the need for that “fear of the Lord” so often emphasized in Scripture. (Just to have a rough sense of it, the phrase “fear of the Lord” appears 52 times in the Douay-Rheims translation.)

The most poignant symbol of the universal loss of reverential fear was the abandonment of the practice of kneeling before the Holy One of Israel, really present in the Blessed Sacrament, and of receiving Him on the tongue from an ordained minister. This old custom, which happily survives here and there, literally embodies man’s dependency on God, his lowliness and unworthiness, his desire to give to God who reigns in heaven the adoration due to Him alone, and his desire for healing and elevation. One must first be low in order to be raised up on high, as the Magnificat proclaims. In this practice is contained the humility of willing to be fed like a baby bird by its parent or a child still too small to feed itself. In the supernatural domain, we are all children who need to be fed by the Father, fed with the bread that is His Son.

The great Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum contains this marvelous stanza:
Cuius forti potentiae
genu curvantur omnia;
caelestia, terrestria
nutu fatentur subdita.

At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
The modified Creator alme siderum conveys the same message in a more classical form:
Cuius potestas gloriae,
Nomenque cum primum sonat,
et caelites et inferi
tremente curvantur genu.

Thy glorious power, Thy saving Name
No sooner any voice can frame,
But heaven and earth and hell agree
To honor them with trembling knee.
“Heaven and earth and hell agree / To honor them with trembling knee.” But we of the modern West are too arrogant to do so anymore. “Live Free or Die,” proclaims the motto of New Hampshire; our knees will not tremble before tyrants. When we worship the god of liberty, we “sit down to eat and drink, and rise up to play” (cf. Ex 32:6), no bowing and scraping, no genuflecting. Our collective head must be big indeed, a microcosm without a God, like the world of the Pharisee in the Gospel of the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. We’re not even good enough for hell, since, as Scripture says, “the demons believe — and tremble” (Jas 2:19), while we prance right up to the table of plenty and take the wafer like a chip at a snackbar. “Wherein have we polluted thee? In that you say: The table of the Lord is contemptible.”

As time goes on, we see ever more clearly that the reasons that were invoked to justify changing the liturgy for the supposed benefit of “modern man” are either the same as or analogous to the reasons that have been and will be invoked for redacting or suppressing Sacred Scripture as well. The message of the Bible must be carefully filtered so that the fear of the Lord, His wrath, His justice, His punishments, His uncompromising demands, will not invade and annoy the minds of modern sophisticates, long since graduated from the savage anthropomorphism of the patriarchs and matriarchs. In reality, we are more like mentally challenged Kindergarteners who have not even reached the threshold of the medieval mind that imagined and executed the transcendent judgment scenes carved across the tympana of Romanesque and Gothic churches.

The Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, made news a couple of years ago when he said we can’t know for sure what Jesus taught because we didn’t have a tape recorder to capture His exact words. According to this Jesuit, we have received Christ’s teaching through the lens of people who may not be entirely trustworthy, so today we must reinterpret Christ’s message through the lens of our own discernment and the voice of our conscience. In other words, we have to grow up, stand on our own two feet, stop depending on what we have been given already, and update Jesus for our times.

Don’t we see the same dynamic at play in the past half-century of liturgical reform? We can’t know for sure what the Eucharistic Sacrifice was supposed to be because we don’t have a tape recorder of the Last Supper or the post-resurrection discourses. We have received our liturgy from people who may not be entirely trustworthy, particularly if they lived in the allegory-addicted Middle Ages or the lavish courts of the Counter-Reformation. Today we have to reinterpret liturgy through the lens of our own “hopes” and “dreams.” Let’s stand on our own two feet as we queue up for the token of belonging.

Evidently, this is what the Eucharist has become to a great number of Catholics: the much-discussed recent Pew Research Center survey shows that huge numbers of Catholics, even those who regularly go to Mass, either do not know the teaching of the Church on transubstantiation or, knowing it, do not believe it. Catechesis is good, but it is not enough; what is needed is a form of liturgy that cries out Real Presence and humbles itself to the dust in adoration. What is needed, in short, is reverential fear.

Back in the 1960s, kneeling for communion and receiving it on the tongue was scoffed at as childish. In our own day, believing that marriage is really indissoluble for life, or that the death penalty is a legitimate response to some crimes, is considered naïve, immature, unrealistic, cruel. The basic move is the same: what the Bible says, what Catholic tradition says, what the liturgy says in words and signs, has to be reinterpreted and adapted for our contemporary situation. If this means outright contradiction, so be it. The thesis demands its antithesis, which will lead us to a new and better synthesis — right?

The line linking Hegel and Feuerbach to Jungmann and Teilhard to Kasper and Bergoglio may not always be obvious, but it is nonetheless intrinsic and profound. The traditional liturgy is absolutely incompatible with this line and is its only remedy.

When Our Lord was praying Psalm 22 upon the altar of the Cross, letting go of His lifeblood for us sinners, He would have prayed these verses:
You who fear the Lord, praise Him;
all you seed of Jacob, glorify Him;
and stand in awe of Him, all you the seed of Israel.
A triple imperative: praise Him, glorify Him, stand in awe of Him . . . you who fear the Lord. May this be the mind we put on (cf. Phil 2:5) when we assist at the same sacrifice.
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